Bentley Wallace said two-year colleges are in the “sweet spot” for helping Arkansas get a handle on its workforce problems.
Workforce development has become a popular issue as industry leaders have said they have a hard time finding enough quality workers to fill their needs. It’s a renewed focus of groups like the Northwest Arkansas Council, which recently announced a three-year plan to strengthen the area’s workforce development and the ties between employers and schools.
Included in those schools were two-year colleges, which council COO Mike Harvey said were a vital resource in aligning company needs with potential employees. Many skilled labor jobs require training but not four-year degrees, and these aren’t dead-end jobs but well-paying, long-term occupational jobs.
Increasingly, businesses are turning to two-year colleges to help with the training for these jobs, not just the skills the jobs require but the so-called “soft skills” that executives have said many of today’s job seekers are lacking.
“There are 22 community colleges in the state, and we’re all unique,” said Wallace, the vice president of economic development at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock. “Community colleges are at the forefront and should be at the forefront of workforce development. We are a relative bargain in terms of higher education.
“We’re right in that sweet spot where people, if they want to get real good-paying job, they need about a year and a half or two years of school. The best-paying jobs are in the skilled labor market. That’s where community colleges live.”
Community colleges across the state offer a cornucopia of two-year degrees, but many are also offering shorter-term training for specific trades. Proponents said the key is for community colleges to work with their regional employers to determine the best programs to implement.
For example, Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville would have a strong retail segment because of Wal-Mart Stores, while colleges in north-central Arkansas may focus more on the agricultural, poultry or natural gas industries.
“Where are those regional centers of excellence?” Wallace said.
Jody Callahan, the chair of the division of applied sciences at College of the Ouachitas in Malvern, said community colleges are in regular contact with local businesses to best plan how to train tomorrow’s workforce. Callahan said when business needs a tweak in training methods, community colleges have the flexibility to improvise.
“We make great use of industry and business advisory committees,” Callahan said. “We consult with business leaders in each discipline. We see what their needs are and then [decide] what programs we can start to meet those needs.
“That’s how our programs maintain their relevancy. They need to be up to date.”
Pulaski Tech, Arkansas’ largest two-year college, has a partnership with Dassault Falcon Jet of Little Rock to help train workers for the company, which produces and completes jets. Wallace believes the program, an evolution of a partnership that began 10 years ago, can serve as a blueprint for future cooperation between community colleges and industry.
The two entities worked together to develop a 16-week, 3-hour-a-week program that teaches prospective employees how to do upholstery or cabinetry for the interior completion of the Falcon Jet planes. The first six weeks of the Falcon Jet program is designed to strengthen and ascertain students’ soft skills, such as work ethic, reliability and teamwork, before the next 10 weeks are spent learning specific skills, which are taught by Falcon Jet employees who are serving as Pulaski Tech teachers.
Previously, Pulaski Tech ran a similar program for students supplied by Falcon Jet, either as a pre-hire and post-hire condition. In this model, which is entirely paid for by Falcon Jet, the college advertises the course, screens applicants and then decides which candidates advance from the first phase to the second, skill-specific phase.
“When they finish the total 16 weeks, they have not only proven their work ethic, but they have developed skills and are very close to production ready,” Wallace said. “For the employer, they don’t have them on the payroll yet. It’s all proving grounds, pipeline development. It’s all about can this person show up on time all the time for six weeks in a row?”
Falcon Jet’s investment is based on the idea that to hire program graduates is a better bet than hiring off the street. The 16-week program is an investment of time for the candidate and gives professors and managers ample opportunity to gauge the potential employee.
John Miller, Falcon Jet’s senior manager of training and education liaison, said the company hired five full-time employees from the first 10 graduates of the program. The program recently completed two more sessions, and a fourth session, which teaches cabinetry, started the last week of April.
Falcon Jet wouldn’t say what the salary range for the new employees was but Miller said the jobs pay “very well” with full benefits and paid vacation days.
“Essentially what it does is it gives us a 16-week interview with these people,” Miller said. “It’s kind of a win-win-win for everybody. It’s a win for the prospective employee because he gets to learn a new skill and decide if Falcon Jet is a place that he or she would like to work. It’s a win for Pulaski Tech because obviously we are using their resources and developing those peripheral partnerships. And it’s certainly a win for Falcon Jet because we get some very motivated people.”
Wallace said he is working with CDI Contractors of Little Rock to develop a similar program for the construction industry. CDI would pay for the program, which would benefit a consortium of CDI and a host of subcontractor companies such as drywall installers, electricians and mechanical engineers.
Mark Beach, the COO of CDI, said the program’s cost of $25,000 would be shared by the members of the consortium. The savings, though, promise to make up for the cost by having a more secure hiring process, i.e., having a better feel for the new employee’s capabilities, soft skills and desire to work.
Again, these are good jobs, Beach said. Entry-level employees in construction can earn $40,000 to $50,000 annually with the possibility to advance in the long term.
“You compare a 16-minute interview to a 16-week interview — what is going to give you the best information?” Beach asked. “This program would work for anybody.”
Beach said shortened, industry-specific programs — especially those paid for by the industry itself — are a great benefit for employees. Instead of graduating from a four-year college with a mountain of student loan debt, a community college program trainee can enter the workforce free and clear, so earnings aren’t diluted by paying off past debt.
Maverick, Co-op Partnerships
Pulaski Tech isn’t the only community college that works to develop programs to best serve industry. Chancellor Sandra Massey of Arkansas State University at Newport said her college recently restarted a partnership with Maverick USA Inc. of North Little Rock to train eight to 10 students every four weeks to become truck drivers.
The prospective drivers are selected by Maverick, which pays the entire cost of training, including housing, which comes out to approximately $2,500. Massey said the college has a similar agreement with MC Express of Jonesboro.
“What’s really cool is it’s easier to send them to school than to advertise for drivers,” Massey said. “Everybody has a little more invested.”
ASU-Newport also has a partnership with electric co-operatives of Arkansas to train selected candidates to become high-voltage linemen. The co-ops select and pay for 17 candidates, one from each region, and the school leaves openings for 13 at-large students, who pay their own way.
It’s a yearlong program that can carry over for credits for a two-year degree, but anyone who enters the high-voltage workforce after completing the course can make up to $70,000 in salary within a couple of years.
“We have really high retention and success rates,” Massey said. “We’re making a huge impact on people’s lives and on the economy.”